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 John Ramage  (1748 - 1802)

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Lived/Active: New York / Canada      Known for: portrait, often miniature

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John Ramage
from Auction House Records.
Portrait of George Washington
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born in Dublin, Ireland, John Ramage established himself in New York City as a painter of miniatures and as a goldsmith, endeavors that were interrupted by a period of time in military service. He was one of the earliest Irish-born artists in America.

In 1763, he studied at the Dublin Society School where he learned the art of miniature painting in watercolor on ivory and also goldsmithing. With these skills, he created delicate gold frames, often with inset jewels, for his miniatures. Most of his miniatures are oval, richly colored, and the subjects are executed with much detailing of clothing and facial characteristics. Typically his work is unsigned.

Ramage left Ireland at an unknown date. By 1772, he was married to Elizabeth Liddell, the daughter of a London merchant, and the couple moved to Nova Scotia, where allegedly he abandoned his wife and children.

By 1775, he was working as a miniaturist and goldsmith in Boston, and in 1776, married Maria Ball of Boston in what was later called a bigamous union. They stayed together only one week because the Revolutionary War began, and Ramage joined the Loyalist troops and went to Halifax with the Royal Irish Volunteers. In Halifax, he married again, this time to a woman called "Mrs. Elizabeth Taylor," whom some historians think may have been his first wife, Elizabeth Liddell.

The following year he and Elizabeth Ramage were in New York City, then occupied by the British. Occupying a studio at No. 17 Chapel Street, he became a much sought after portraitist by both the British and the Americans. Among his subjects were John Quincy Adams, Gouverneur Morris, and members of many other prominent families. However, he remained loyal to Britain and was commissioned as a Lieutenant in Company 7, City Militia.

Ramage remained in New York after it became the capital of the United States and had considerable success. He was also quite a flamboyant character who dressed as a dandy, womanized, and spent money recklessly.

One of his subjects was George Washington, who sat for Ramage in New York on October 3, 1789. The artist did two portraits, the first from life with Washington looking to his right. The President, who hated to pose for portraits, took a special interest in this one because he intended it as a gift for his wife. The second Washington portrait showed the subject in his Continental Army uniform facing forward in a less formal pose, and the frame for that painting was made by the artist.

These portraits were the first ones of Washington since his inauguration on April 30, 1789, and were the most important commissions of the artist's career. It is likely that Ramage painted the uniform separately from Washington's posing for the portraits because after the War, Washington preferred civilian dress and seldom wore his uniform.

According to a Christie's New York auction catalogue, "George Washington: The First Presidential Portrait," 1/19/2001, George Washington made a diary entry several days after sitting for Ramage in which the President referred to a "miniature Picture of me for Mrs. Washington--" For a man who had over fifty portraits from life and reportedly loathed sitting for them, it appears this first portrait by Ramage is the only one for which Washington willingly posed because it had special meaning between the couple.

The painting, a gift to Martha Washington's family, stayed in that family for over a century and was not widely known beyond them and the descendants of John Ramage until the late 19th century.

In 1794, having achieved high success, John Ramage was forced to flee New York City because of it's debtor laws. He left his wife and family and went to Canada. It was later determined that it was the underwriting of the note of a friend and not his own high living that brought the financial downfall of Ramage. His household goods and painting supplies were advertised at a sheriff's sale, but apparently the items from his studio were not sold because they were later given to the New York Historical Society.

Sadly in Canada, this artist who was much admired in the United States was regarded as a traitor in spite of his service to the Crown. He was jailed upon his arrival because of accusations that he had made friendly remarks about Americans. In 1802, John Ramage died at the home of a stranger in Montreal, where he, a Free Mason, was buried in the Protestant cemetery.

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